Pope Francis meets then-Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick during his general audience at the Vatican June 19, 2013. CNS photo/Vatican Media

Charles Lewis: The papal office deserves a defence

  • September 18, 2018

Before I became a Catholic 10 years ago I viewed the papacy as a monarchy, representing great strength and self-assurance. 

It was one of the elements of Catholicism that appealed to me. A strong dogmatic faith needed a strong man to steer the great ship without the need for endless debate and opinion, especially about dogma and doctrine.

The deposit of faith should never be subjected to a popularity contest.

I understood that cardinals chose popes under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. It thrilled me to hear that a pope was considered Christ’s Shadow on Earth. It all fit with the grand notion that the Holy Roman Catholic Church was the fullest human expression of Jesus Christ.

Becoming a Catholic for me was submission to Church teachings but also to its hierarchy. I also believed that criticism of the papacy was a sport for non-Catholics or perhaps disgruntled Catholics who were always at odds with Church teachings.

Then a few things happened.

On Feb. 28, 2013 Pope Benedict resigned. I was shocked. I had watched St. Pope John Paul II make his trek to the very end in such a brave and inspiring way. I assumed that was what popes did. Their duties ended in Heaven.

I do not doubt that Benedict had good reasons to leave. But I think in a way he weakened the papacy, although that will not be clear until much later and the theologians have at it.

And now we have attacks on Pope Francis. 

Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò wrote an 11-page letter claiming the Pope ignored sanctions imposed by Pope Benedict on ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick related to sexual abuse of minors and misconduct with seminarians. Viganò called on Francis to resign. 

Even though the Vatican knew about McCarrick as early as 2000, when John Paul II was pope, the blame seemed to fall only on Francis. We also now know the sanctions imposed by Benedict were done quietly — whatever that means. Apparently Benedict and his advisors failed to enforce the sanctions. We also know it was Francis, not his predecessors, who finally got rid of McCarrick. 

When the Viganò letter dropped you could almost see the Catholic world parting. Those who love Francis said they would stick by him. Others seemed to jump with glee at what appeared to be a substantive reason to kick Francis out of office. 

How could so many people on such flimsy evidence assume Viganò was right, given that the story was founded solely on his word? I found myself becoming a Francis defender. Not because it is Francis necessarily, but because the papacy needs defending. It is not, and nor should it ever be, just another leadership role. That would cheapen the office. 

Those who rallied to the Viganò flag have a great habit of ignoring the archbishop’s own shortcomings, such as lying to Benedict about needing to be in Rome to care for a sick brother. The brother lived in Chicago, was in perfect health and was actually estranged from the archbishop. Then there is the allegation that Viganò shut down an abuse investigation in 2014, a charge he denies.

It has not helped that Francis has not spoken to this directly. I assume he thinks it is beneath him to respond to what he sees as empty accusations. But at a certain point Francis has to put pride aside — even if it is distasteful to do so. He is not a private citizen. He is the overseer of 1.2 billion people. We want to hear from him.

It did not help, either, that in the midst of this storm Francis chose to preach about plastics floating in the ocean. There are enough environmentalists to worry about the oceans and even global warming. I met someone once who left a liberal Protestant church because he came to realize there is no salvation through recycling.

The Vatican says the Pope intends to respond to Viganò’s accusations. Given the glacial speed at which the hierarchy moves, that could take a while. The Vatican will also hold a meeting of the heads of the world’s bishop conferences in February to address the crisis.

By then my view will be vindicated … or not.

(Lewis is a Toronto writer and regular contributor to The Register.)

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